Episode 60

Writing Advice from a CIA Agent Turned Fiction Author

A CIA agent turned fiction author offers writing advice about character development that can be applied to all genres of fiction.

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

“Strawberry Daiquiri” by Sarah Angel

Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

I have an update on the book thief for you today. We are also catching up with the Internet Archive court case and talking about emotional intelligence.

The Writing Break cafe is open, so let’s find our usual table and I’ll fill you in on some publishing news.

Filippo Bernardini, the thirty-year-old con artist who tricked authors and literary agents into sending him unpublished manuscripts, was sentenced to time served, which means he gets to go home. He was arrested and tried in the United States, but he is an Italian citizen and British resident, so he will be sent either to the United Kingdom where he lives with his partner and his dog or to Italy.

If you remember, Bernardini did not sell or share the manuscripts, so his motives were never clear to law enforcement. In a letter to the judge, Bernardini finally explained why he did what he did. Because of his love of books, he decided to pursue a publishing career in London. He had an internship at a literary agency, but he was unable to secure a full-time publishing job in London.

“While employed, I saw manuscripts being shared between editors, agents, and literary scouts or even with individuals outside the industry. So, I wondered: why can I not also get to read these manuscripts?”

After successfully tricking one person into sending him a manuscript, it turned into “an obsession, a compulsive behavior….I had a burning desire to feel like I was still one of these publishing professionals and read these new books.…Every time an author sent me the manuscript I would feel like I was still part of the industry. At the time, I did not think about the harm I was causing….I never wanted to and I never leaked these manuscripts. I wanted to keep them closely to my chest and be one of the fewest to cherish them before anyone else, before they ended up in bookshops.”

Among the letters sent to the judge asking for leniency was one victim, Jesse Ball. By impersonating Ball’s editor, Bernardini was able to get Ball to send several unpublished manuscripts. In his letter, Ball said that the publishing industry was getting “more and more corporate and cookiecutter”; he referred to Bernardini’s crimes as a “trivial thing, frivolous thing.” Ball also said,“we must be grateful when something human enters the picture: when the publishing industry for once becomes something worth writing about. For once a person cared deeply about something—what matter that he was an interloper? You cannot imagine the soul crushing boredom of run-of-the-mill publishing correspondence. I’m grateful that there is still room in the world for something facetious to occur now and then.”

The judge, however, was not convinced that this was a harmless, victimless crime, pointing to the threats Bernardini made in some of his email messages as well as the harm that was done to a literary scout who was first accused of Bernardini’s crimes.

In the end, though, the judge decided that a prison sentence would not help the victims. Bernardini will have to pay $88,000 in restitution.

In his letter to the judge, Bernardini said, “The cruel irony is that every time I open a book, it reminds me of my wrongdoings and what they led me to.”

I realized I haven’t talked with you about another ongoing publishing case, Hachette v. Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a nonprofit organization that “offers free public access to collections of digitized materials, including websites, software applications/games, music, movies/videos, moving images, and millions of books.”

The Internet Archive considers themselves a library, but what they do is scan a print book and lend out the scanned copy. You can check out books in the public domain for 14 days. You can check out books not in the public domain for one hour. At the end of the hour, you can check the book out again if no one is waiting for it.

e real trouble began in March:

The publishers’ main claim is that the unauthorized scanning of the books is copyright infringement. The Internet Archive’s main defense is that they are a library lending books to its patrons.

Among other things, Fair Use considers “whether using a copyrighted work is good for the public, how much it’ll impact the copyright holder, how much of the work has been copied, and whether the use has ‘transformed’ a copyrighted thing into something new.”

k-scanning court case back in:

The judge for the Internet Archive case, however, ruled in favor of the publishing houses and its authors. “Any ‘alleged benefits’ from the Internet Archive’s library ‘cannot outweigh the market harm to the publishers....There is nothing transformative about [Internet Archive’s] copying and unauthorized lending,’ and…copying these books doesn’t provide ‘criticism, commentary, or information about them.’”

As for the Internet Archive’s claim that they might have helped publishers sell more books, the judge ruled that there was no direct evidence of that. According to court documents, the Internet Archive lends out books more than 70,000 times a day. They plan to appeal the court’s decision.

Links to these articles can be found in the show notes of this episode and on writingbreak.com. I know the news took up more time than usual today, so we’re going to skip the bookstore and get right to talking about your writing. Let’s settle in on the Overthinking Couch for today’s writing tip.

After working nine years as a CIA officer, Brittany Butler has released her debut thriller called The Syndicate Spy. In a recent article she wrote for Publisher’s Weekly, Butler describes a bit about her time working with the CIA, and she also discusses how her experiences inform her new book, which she assures is fiction and not a memoir. “When people ask how I got into the CIA, I emphasize that I did not have a fancy Ivy League education, nor was I the daughter of a diplomat. What I did possess was a strong work ethic and a high degree of emotional intelligence. By ‘emotional intelligence,’ I mean the ability to gauge both a source’s veracity and their willingness to work with the CIA—something I believe women are better qualified to judge than men. Over the years, we’ve heard a lot about the James Bonds, Jason Bournes, and Gabriel Allons of spy fiction. While highly entertaining and well done, it’s time for a different kind of spy story—one in which a real female spy emerges from the shadows to tell her tale.”

You’ll find her article linked in the show notes, and it is an interesting read if you want a couple of anecdotes about what it’s like to be a female CIA agent.

Whether or not you’re writing a story with a law enforcement agent as the protagonist, it is important to keep emotional intelligence in mind. Emotional intelligence should be something your characters have to varying degrees. A book in which all the characters successfully manage their emotions and recognize the emotions of others is going to be a boring book.

Emotional intelligence could be something your protagonist gains throughout the book or throughout a series, often with the help of friends and family members who have more and sometimes less emotional intelligence. Maybe some of your characters understand their feelings but do little to manage them. If your character has a lot of emotional intelligence, they might be able to not only identify but also influence the emotions of those around them.

A character who has a great deal of influence on others but does not understand what others are feeling will often be blindsided by the actions of others. For example, Voldemort had a great deal of influence on Narcissa Malfoy’s emotions but underestimated a mother’s love for her child.

For many writers, it’s easier to write a loner character who doesn’t play well with others, but in real life, how much can a person without emotional intelligence resolve on their own? And if a loner character has high emotional intelligence, why are they loners? This can be explained to the reader through backstory, but it should be addressed in some way.

Perhaps a character can be emotionally intelligent for some things but not others. Maybe they’re smooth operators until they fall in love. Or they’re kind-hearted and generous, except when it comes to their neighbor with whom they have a long-standing feud. Maybe they’re great with their friends but not with strangers. Maybe they have no self-reflection at all and continually get in their own way. Maybe they wear their lack of emotional intelligence as a badge of honor, no matter how much it impedes them and harms others.

Make it make sense. I would refrain from using the phrase “emotional intelligence” in your explanations. This is definitely a “show, don’t tell” situation.

The idea is to develop characters whose natural personalities and life experiences match their emotional intelligence. Write so that the reader can understand what your characters have gone through and are going through, but do not spoon feed your audience. Let your readers put the pieces together for themselves.

Emotional intelligence is an excellent space to add skills and flaws that make your charact er feel real to the reader.

That’s all for this episode. Thank you for listening, and remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos


Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.